The All-Star Game has come and gone, which means every NBA game from here on out will matter. For some teams, the games will matter because of how they shape next season, with young players getting opportunities to improve and each loss meaning a chance at a better draft pick.
For most teams, including the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks at 43-14, the final seven weeks of the season are about jockeying for playoff position. In the Eastern Conference, there are 11 teams fighting for the eight playoff spots with three teams within three games of the last slot. In the West, just nine games separate No. 4 (Portland) and No. 13 (New Orleans).
The Bucks, coming off an all-star weekend in which Giannis Antetokounmpo was both a captain and a standout performer, Khris Middleton debuted with a 20-point, sharpshooting effort and Mike Budenholzer and his staff patrolled the sidelines, have a chance to make a big splash over the final 25 games of their season. They’re on pace for more than 60 wins, which would mark the fifth time reaching that milestone and first since 1980-81.
More importantly, the Bucks are aiming to earn their first playoff series win – and more – since 2001.
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Here are five things to watch as the Bucks make their final push toward the playoffs.
The Bucks added floor-stretching forward Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline but have cautiously handled his right calf strain, opting to keep him out until after the break. Mirotic could make his Milwaukee debut as early as Thursday, when the Bucks host the Boston Celtics at 7 p.m. at Fiserv Forum.
Acquiring Mirotic has been roundly praised as a steal for the Bucks, who gave up two players who were out of the rotation — Thon Maker and Jason Smith — along with four second-round draft picks, including only one of their own. Mirotic should slot into Budenholzer’s rotation right away, giving Milwaukee a serious offensive threat whose shooting range can extend past 30 feet.
In trading for Mirotic, the Bucks also opened a roster spot. With a deep roster and full rotation, they could go numerous directions, either to add size, more shooting, a low-maintenance veteran or a developmental player on a team-friendly contract.
Fight for first
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Barring an unexpected collapse, the Bucks and Toronto Raptors should finish Nos. 1-2 in the East in some order. The Bucks entered the break at 43-14, including winning 3 of 4 against the Raptors to hold the tiebreaker, and Toronto is 43-16.
That tiebreaker could become important considering the schedules each team will face. The Raptors have the easiest remaining strength of schedule, including only one game against a top-five Eastern Conference team (Boston) and five games against current Western Conference playoff teams. Of those six games, five will be played in Toronto.
Milwaukee’s schedule isn’t overwhelming, but the Bucks definitely will face stiffer competition. The Bucks have four games left against the top contenders in the East, with one-offs against the Celtics and Indiana Pacers and two contests remaining against the new-look Philadelphia 76ers. Three will be played at Fiserv Forum. Milwaukee also has five games against Western Conference playoff teams, three at home.
The Bucks’ schedule also features a five-game road trip starting in late February that could prove taxing with three straight road games against the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz, with the latter two being a back-to-back. Toronto’s longest remaining road trip is three games.
Antetokounmpo has been one of the most dominant players in the league this season, if not the most dominant. He’s averaging 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks while leading the league with 8.3 field goals per game within 5 feet of the basket on 73.8 percent shooting. He has a league-best 206 dunks in 53 games, which puts him on pace to shatter the record for dunks since the league started tracking them, set by Dwight Howard at 266.
To top all of that off, the Bucks are a monstrous 13 points per 100 possessions better than opponents with Antetokounmpo on the floor.
Normally, all of that would all probably be enough to make Antetokounmpo the clear favorite for league MVP. However, what Hoston Rockets guard James Harden has done this season is far from normal.
Harden, the reigning MVP, went into the all-star break with 31 consecutive games scoring 30 or more points, tying Wilt Chamberlain’s second-longest such streak. Harden has pulled the injury-depleted Rockets to a 33-24 record, good for fifth in the West. He’s averaging 36.6 points per game – the seventh-most all-time behind five Chamberlain seasons and Michael Jordan’s 1986-87 campaign – along with 7.7 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 2.2 steals.
What both players do over the final stretch of the season has the power to swing the MVP conversation one way or the other, but right now it’s too close to call. They’ll go head to head on March 26 at Fiserv Forum in a game that will be televised nationally on TNT.
Gotta catch ’em all
The Bucks could accomplish a feat they haven’t done since the league expanded to 30 teams in 2004 – beat every team at least once during a season. Only four Western Conference teams stand in the way – the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Lakers and Phoenix Suns.
Milwaukee faces the Lakers twice over the final 25 games (March 1 and March 19) while getting just one rematch against the other teams after dropping the first matchup. The Bucks play in Phoenix on March 4, at home against the Clippers on March 28 and finish the regular season at home against the Thunder on April 10.
The Bucks are the only team that has not lost to the same team twice or lost two games in a row at any point this season.
Brook Lopez, who is averaging 6.5 three-point attempts per game and has put up 371, is narrowly on pace to break Ray Allen’s franchise record of 528 three-point attempts in a season set in 2001-’02.
Malcolm Brogdon, who has made 121 of 129 free throws (93.8 percent) is on track to eclipse Jack Sikma’s mark of 92.2 percent free-throw shooting during the 1987-88 season.
Antetokounmpo has five triple-doubles this season, tying his own mark for the most in a season.